In pornography, there’s literally a market for everything: Why ‘feminist porn’ isn’t the answer

“If there’s something you don’t like about your body, put it into a search engine, put ‘+ porn,’ and you’ll find a whole host of sites that find that’s the most attractive thing about you,” porn producer, Anna Arrowsmith said in an interview with BBC, with reference to a debate she would be participating in, hosted by Intelligence Squared in London.

 

The debate was centered around the motion: “Pornography is good for us” — indeed, a stupidly simplistic and unanswerable question in and of itself; the debate shone a light on the intellectually void and anti-feminist nature of the delusion that is “feminist” or “queer” pornography.

Arrowsmith begins her argument in a most telling way; describing how, one night, walking through London’s red light district, she realized that, rather than feeling angry, she was “envious” that men’s sexuality was being catered to “in so many different ways.” This feeling is likely familiar to many of us and is also an entry point into pro-porn/prostitution feminism for many women. After all, it’s not particularly unreasonable that a woman might feel “envious” of men’s position in this world. It makes perfect sense to feel as though we’ve gotten the shaft (pun!), as women, as far as cultural and social prioritization of female sexuality goes. But is the answer to take what men have in the sex industry, break off a corner piece, and try to mold it into something marginally less male-centric? Is the answer to exploitation to provide “equal” opportunity exploitation? Is our goal, as feminists, to be more like men and to merely adapt to a male-dominated world as best we can? Are we so unwilling to imagine something different than simply “more porn!”?

“I knew then that it was far more productive and feminist to invest my time in creating something that allowed women to explore their sexuality than it was to thwart men’s freedoms,” Arrowsmith said.

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. And while you’re at it, be sure to let the men know you’re on their side. They need change nothing — you’re jumping on board with them. Arrowsmith wants to be seen as one of the “good” feminists. Non-threatening. Fun. Sexxxxxy. Alas, the logic and ideology behind her arguments is not only confused, it’s anti-feminist.

Not only does Arrowsmith want to reassure men they are doing nothing wrong, that she’s on their side, that all she wants is a piece of the pie — but she goes so far as to blame feminism (in particular, Andrea Dworkin) for victimizing women: “Such theorists see women as inevitable victims which, in turn, encourages women to see themselves as victims. It is this anti-porn feminism that gave men the power to taunt women with porn…”

It’s all in your head, Arrowsmith’s self-help style, faux-empowerment discourse goes — Just change your frame of mind, and you can change the world. Yet no amount of positive affirmations or standing in front of mirrors, telling ourselves we are not victims and that we are empowered, will stop men from raping and abusing and objectifying us. Feeling good is great. I highly recommend it. But a political movement to end oppression and inequality, it is not.

Feminism hasn’t victimized women. Neither does the word “victim,” victimize women. Perpetrators of violence victimize women. Blaming women for their own oppression is the lowest of the low. Naming the perpetrator is rule number one in this movement.

Still think Anna Arrowsmith is on our side? Still think “feminist pornography” has anything to do with feminism?

Arrowsmith imagines herself to be making a case for female empowerment via the sex industry. That is, if the fetishization and sexualization of everything and everyone is the be all end all of liberation.

She believes that the problem with objectification (which she understands, in her muted and apolitical way, to mean: “seeing someone for their sexual attractiveness alone”) is simply that it isn’t “socially acceptable” for women to objectify men (though they are capable of doing so “just as easily”).

You see, Arrowsmith has limited her vision of female sexuality (and is working very hard to convince us to limit ours as well) to what she sees in a male-dominated world — understandably — this is all we know. If only we could have what they have, that whole injustice thing would fade away. If women, too, were able to objectify men as men objectify women, objectification would cease to play a starring role in the global epidemic that is violence against women.

Just imagine! If a woman had objectified Joe Francis, he never would have made a lucrative career off the backs of young, inebriated women he convinced to “go wild” — Certainly if women could produce similar films, the objectification and exploitation that support his hatred of women would vanish. Certainly Francis’ view of women as objects that exist solely for his financial gain and/or male pleasure had nothing to do with his recent conviction on assault charges. Nope. The fact that if you don’t comply to Francis’ wishes, and you happen to be a woman, he may or may not smash your head into a tile floor, has nothing at all to do with his soft-core porn empire (which he, like all pornographers, presents as “free speech”). He has a long history of exploiting and abusing women and girls. If you should ever need a clear picture of the connections between prostitution, pornography, and violence against women, look no further than Joe Francis. Or Larry Flynt. Or Belgian porn king, Dennis Black Magic. Turning living beings into objects erases their humanity. It’s far easier to abuse an object. Men who don’t respect women, don’t respect women.

Would “queer porn” have changed how Joe Francis saw and treated women? If it were “socially acceptable” for women to objectify men, would Girls Gone Wild have ceased to be an exploitative, woman-hating, dick-fest? If more women with tattoos and real breasts were made into porn, would the billion-dollar porn industry lose a cent? Would it change it’s misogynistic ways? Would those porn producers suddenly start respecting women? What’s the logic behind this?

Cover your eyes and plug your ears, ladies. Objectification is for everyone. This could be your liberation.

Arrowsmith’s arguments outline many of the problems with discourse around so-called “feminist pornography” — One of those arguments being that diversity will address and erase the misogyny that is integral to the industry. So, the argument goes: if we simply include diverse bodies in our porn, it will cease to be sexist. But, if the problem with pornography lies in narrow definitions of beauty, then we’re making the argument that it’s impossible to objectify women who aren’t thin or who don’t have surgically enhanced bodies. Or that somehow it’s more ethical to objectify “alternative” or “diverse” bodies.

This is, of course, not true. Objectification doesn’t only work on hairless, orange ladies whose bodies have been trimmed and buffed and stuffed full of silicone. Oh no. Men are fully capable of objectifying all kinds of women. Rape happens to fat women and disabled women and older women and racialized women, too, Anna. Is the ability to watch “an amputee,” as Arrowsmith suggests, in porn, progressive? Would we feel better if we watched a woman over 40 be gang raped? Would fetishizing cellulite end male violence? Please.

Another key problem, according to “feminist porn” pushers, is that porn is simply misrepresented. Arrowsmith says, for example, that the oh-so-diverse ways in which porn objectifies all kinds of women isn’t represented in the “mainstream press.” But the problems with porn goes far beyond “representation.”

Germaine Greer, who was placed on the other end of this debate, points out that “porn is not a style, and it’s not a literary genre… It’s an industry.” In other words, this isn’t merely an issue of representation. Nor is it an issue of diversity. Today, pornography is just as much about capitalism as it is patriarchy. It’s about the commodification of bodies and of sexuality for the purposes of profit. Under an inherently exploitative system, such as capitalism, I find the idea that porn is about anything liberating or has anything at all to do with democracy (as Arrowsmith calls it: “the democratization of the body”) deeply ignorant. Capitalism’s whole deal is profits before people, so the notion that one who aligns themselves with a movement towards social equality, such as feminism, would advocate for an industry that exists at the expense of women’s lives, is illogical.

Arrowsmith presents the industry as one that caters to women’s needs and lives, saying: “The porn industry is organized around the women who perform in the films as they decide their limits and are hired on that basis.” Ok sure. If you think that having a three year career (which is the average amount of time women last in the porn industry) in which women are pressured to perform more and more extreme acts and, once they do perform those acts, can’t return to the more “vanilla” acts they were doing before constitutes a female-led industry. The ones who get longevity, financially and career-wise, are the men who run the industry. Women get a few thousand dollars, maybe three years, and a lifetime of humiliation as those images follow them around for the rest of their lives.

Perhaps worst of all, Arrowsmith believes that pornography is a useful stand-in for actual sex education: “It’s where most men learn about where the clitoris, A-spot, and G-spot are.” But the fact that porn is actually seen as a kind of sex education and is actually where most boys and men are learning about sex these days is not something to be celebrated. Not only does porn provide a warped understanding of what women enjoy, sexually (being dominated, facials, gang bangs, double-penetration, everything men enjoy sexually, etc.) but it doesn’t teach consent. Instead it provides viewers with the impression that women are always up for anything and, furthermore, that rape is something that turns us on, even if we think we don’t want it.

By far, the most common female character in porn is “teen.” I tend to think that sexualizing teenage girls isn’t best sex education for men. Is this the “diversity” you’re talking about, Anna? Is this the sex education we want for men? Anna Arrowsmith should probably google “teen porn” and then get back to us about this great, pro-woman sex education porn is providing for men.

Ironically, Arrowsmith runs a “campaign website” called WeConsent.org. The site purports to “campaign against moral panics and anti-erotic industry legislation.” Everything from the name to the supposed aim of the site should be raising red flags. The intentionally meaningless language intends to manipulate the public into believing that 1) the porn industry is interested in “consent,” and 2) opposition to the porn industry stems from puritanism and some kind of illusory “anti-sex” position.

I say “ironically” with reference to the name of the site because, in fact, the entire basis for the sex industry is lack of consent. And no, before sex work advocates start manipulating my words to mean that I think sex workers or porn performers can’t be raped, because every sex act that is paid for constitutes rape, that isn’t exactly the argument I’m making. Consensual sex happens when both parties desire sex. If one partner does not want to have sex, and sex happens anyway, that constitutes rape (i.e. nonconsensual sex). In porn, those involved are being paid to perform sex acts. They are paid because the sex acts they are engaging in are not desired. Once you are paying someone to have sex with you, it no longer counts as consensual, enthusiastic, desired sex. Yes, you agreed to perform whatever sexual acts — but you did so because you were being paid. Not because you really, really, really wanted to fake an orgasm while that very special man fucks you in the ass.

“Whatever happens between consenting adults…” is another manipulation put forth by the sex industry advocates. But is this the kind of consent we’re looking for, as feminists? To be paid to perform sex acts and fake enjoyment? Really? It doesn’t sound liberating to me. That doesn’t sound like “free sexuality” to me.

Even more odd is how the pro-porn “feminists” have also positioned themselves as “sex-positive,” implying that there exists a faction of feminists who are “sex-negative.” I’m perpetually amused to have been placed in some imagined “anti-sex” camp due to my criticisms of the sex industry, though it becomes less and less laughable as more and more people seem to be buying into the notion that “pro-porn” equals “pro-sex.” After all, what’s so “sex-positive” about commodified, coerced sex? What’s so “sex-positive” about promoting an industry that encourages an understanding of sex and sexuality that is not only male-centered, but prioritizes profit over the well-being, pleasure, and respect of women?

Greer’s comments, in fact, were the only “sex-positive” thing I heard in the entire debate, who said (and I completely agree): “I’m in favour of erotic art. I’m desperate to find a way to reincorporate sexuality in the narrative that we give of our lives.” That I feel nothing less than elated in the rare moments I’ve seen women’s bodies and sexualities represented onscreen in ways that don’t objectify and degrade shows me how desperate I am for this as well. We’re so accustomed to pornographic representations of sex and sexuality that we can’t even imagine an alternative. We’ve been told that porn equals sex and that, therefore, to be critical of porn is to be critical of sexual expression. That argument is then extended into one that says that, by either criticizing, limiting, or “censoring” pornography, we are repressing people’s sexualities and sexual freedom. But, as Greer points out: “Pornography doesn’t make us less repressed — pornography is a way of making money off of the fact that we are repressed.”

The solution to the massive and insidious impacts of porn on our lives and views of women, men, and sexuality is not “more porn”. Neither will “diversity” resolve the misogynistic and exploitative nature of the porn industry. The fact that Arrowsmith believes that objectifying “an amputee” or women who don’t look like Playboy models is liberating shows a depressing lack of understanding with regard to how the industry functions and the ways that objectification impacts the status of and real lives of women everywhere. The fact that she believes that women will feel better about their perceived flaws because they can find porn that fetishizes said flaws is, frankly, stupid. “Ooooh look! That man just came all over that lady’s tummy rolls! Body-hatred = resolved.”

“Whatever gives you pleasure, gives you power” can only be your mantra so long as power (rather than social equality) is your modus operandi. When Arrowsmith tells us that “whatever interests you, sexually, is what you should practice,” what she’s condoning and advocating for is not women or female sexual liberation, but a model that says that individual desire, whatever that desire may be, takes precedence over justice, equality, and human rights. Beyond that, pornography limits possibilities for, and our ability to explore real sexual pleasure outside the confines set up by the linear narrative of porn which prioritizes male ejaculation over all else and teaches women to focus on their performance (and faked orgasms) rather than their pleasure.

Arrowsmith says pornography is like “a game or a sport,” and she’s right, in a way… The “game” is one of narcissistic conquest wherein, as Anita Sarkeesian reminded us recently, with respect to “the game of patriarchy,” rather than being the opposing team, women are the ball.

Arrowsmith’s “queer, feminist porn” is nothing more than a desire to jump into the court and grab a racket in the vain hope she won’t get hit.z

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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